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Stan Devoto wants to try something new in Apple Country: Plant an orchard, not with the tasty Gravenstein but with such bitter, hard cider varieties as Kingston black, Dabinett and Herefordshire redstreak.

In a west Sonoma County industry that has seen little but decline for half a century, Devoto is trying to build a new kind of apple business. He wants to grow fruit that doesn't end up in juice or apple sauce but in an alcoholic beverage whose sales are growing faster than craft beer.

"I think there's a future in that," said Devoto, a longtime Sebastopol farmer and grape grower whose daughter and son-in-law have started a hard cider business. He even offered a startling prediction: If he can plant a new orchard, he can make almost as much money growing cider apples as growing winegrapes.

A few Sonoma County apple growers also have started producing hard cider, a fermented drink with an alcohol content similar to beer but more popular with women. While the efforts remain fledgling, they suggest a new avenue to keep alive an iconic west county crop for another generation.

"I don't know the last time when we had a new commercial apple orchard put in," said Tony Linegar, the county's agricultural commissioner. It may have happened over 20 years ago, he said, but in his office "it's farther back than anyone here can remember."

Those in the hard cider industry say the beverage could give local apple farmers a needed shot in the arm.

"I would think the pendulum has swung so far for apples, it's almost time to swing back the other way," said Jeffrey House, president and owner of Ace Cider in Sebastopol.

The 20-year-old Ace is one of the largest independently owned cideries in the country. Its annual production amounts to 500,000 cases, with sales approaching $10 million and a growth rate of 40 percent a year.

The growth helps explain why large brewers like Anheuser-Busch inBev, Heineken and MillerCoors are getting into the hard cider business. Anheuser-Busch on Monday is slated to place in stores nationwide its new Johnny Appleseed Hard Apple Cider.

"We may also get involved in orchards ourselves," House said of Ace's plans. Hard cider production eventually could lead to planting more apple trees in west county. Even a few wineries that already ferment the apple juice for some local farmers might one day make their own ciders, he said.

For most of the past century, the hills around Sebastopol have gleamed white each spring with apple blossoms. West county residents once more will celebrate their heritage crop next weekend with the annual Apple Blossom Festival.

"There's nothing more beautiful than an apple orchard blooming," said Torrey Olson, who raises apples and Asian pears at Gabriel Farm near Graton.

However, aesthetic appeal and a storied history haven't halted the industry's long retreat.

Farmers here raise Gravensteins and other varieties pretty much the way their grandfathers did. Meanwhile, the world's fresh apples today are grown mostly in irrigated, high-density orchards. And U.S. consumers can buy gallons of cheap juice made from frozen concentrate imported from China.

In the '30s and '40s, Sonoma County had 15,000 acres of apple orchards, virtually all grown without irrigation. Today, much of that land has been converted to vineyards, and fewer than 2,200 acres remain in apple production. Gravenstein orchards in production today amount to less than 500 acres.

Farmers in 2012 produced an apple crop worth $5.4 million, a smidgen compared with the $583million paid to winegrape growers.

"The apple industry was so bad for so long that most of the farmers ended up selling their land," recalled apple farmer Perry Kozlowski, part of the family that owns Kozlowski Farms outside Forestville. One of the low points came in 1983 when the Sebastopol Apple Cooperative Cannery went broke, leaving growers unpaid and unable to pay off their loans.

But a small group of "holdouts" hung on, said Kozlowski, whose father and grandfather planted apples. His son, Tyler, wants to become the family's fourth generation of apple farmers.

The remaining growers eventually found ways to get a little more money for their apples. A decade of promotions by local food advocate Slow Food is widely acknowledged for helping boost the price paid for fresh Gravensteins.

"I can't say enough good things about Slow Food," said Lee Walker, an apple farmer who operates one of the county's last packing sheds. "They've made a turnaround in the Gravensteins," so much so that he has a hard time keeping up with demand from Bay Area markets.

Most of the remaining apple farmers have switched to organic production, just as local dairy farmers have gone organic in order to distinguish their milk from a commodity product.

"I think that the only future for the apple industry in west county now is to be organic," said Sebastopol apple farmer Randy Roberts, who converted his 130 acres more than three years ago. Those who sell conventional apples for processing get much less for their crop, he said.

Many of Roberts' organic methods would be familiar to his grandfather. Organic practices include using sprays of naturally occurring substances, such as copper and sulfur, as well as spreading lots of manure for fertilizer.

At Manzana Products in Graton, the county's last apple processor, nearly 90 percent of the processed apples are organic, President Suzanne Kaido said.

The plant was purchased two years ago by the Eclor beverage division of Agrial, a French company with 3.6 billion euros in revenue in 2012. For this harvest, the new owner has installed a production line that can fill 200 3.5-ounce pouches a minute with organic apple sauce.

"There's a big market for the squeeze pouches," Kaido said.

For the industry's next chapter, many see promise in hard cider. Even Eclor officials expressed interest in exploring such production here, Kaido said, partly because hard cider is very popular in Europe.

The beverage remains a sliver of the U.S. beer market, but news reports say the cider industry is growing between 60 and 90 percent a year. And surveys suggest women are more likely to drink hard cider than craft beer.

Along with Ace, the county already features such artisan cider makers as Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg, Murray's Cyder in Petaluma and the farm-based Tilted Shed Ciderworks near Forestville.

Joining them will be apple farmer Paul Kolling, who with his wife, Kendra, operate Nana Mae's Organics, a maker of apple juices and sauces.

A big apple crop last year and a lack of available storage "pushed me into the cider business," Kolling said.

His upcoming cider brand will be called "Specific Gravity." Like others in the apple business, he sees potential in cider and believes the high quality associated with the county's wines has provided a boost to other products that include the name "Sonoma" on their labels.

"Hopefully we can build a world-class reputation for the cider," Kolling said.

Right now, dessert apples, those commonly eaten or used in baking, make up most of the local crop used in cider production. But both Devoto and Tilted Shed have begun planting small numbers of varieties that were developed specifically for cider. Farmers say they are as distinct from dessert apples as wine grapes are from table grapes.

"You can't eat them," said Jolie Devoto-Wade, Stan Devoto's daughter. "They're called spitters ... They're so bitter."

In 2012, Devoto-Wade and her husband, Hunter Wade, released their first batch of 1,100 cases of Devoto Orchards Cider. Last year, production grew to 4,100 cases and "we still can't meet demand," said Devoto-Wade.

Now her father is seeking to lease up to 50 acres on which to drill a well and plant an orchard of cider apples.

Devoto said he is seeking a 25-year lease because of the time it would take to get a return on the initial investment. Other farmers said it can take five years to get even a partial crop from new apple trees.

Devoto will continue to sell his best Gravensteins and other dessert apples on the fresh market. But with cider, he said, he'll be able to earn considerably more for the remaining crop that doesn't make the grade for the fresh market.

While the hard cider business eventually may provide a boost to the apple industry, farm officials cautioned that in the near term the county likely will see more declines in acreage.

Even now, about half of the acres still in apple production aren't regularly sprayed, fertilized and tended, said Paul Vossen, an orchard expert for the county's UC Cooperative Extension. Many of those orchards have languished for so long that the trees could never again approach a normal level of production, he said.

As a result, the county may see more attempts to convert orchards into vineyards. Farm officials noted that many west county neighbors oppose such conversions and want the land to stay in apples.

"They don't understand that it's very difficult to make a living at it," said Vossen.

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)